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    “But he has the last cry”: The Jewish New Year, when humanity contends with God

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 20 September, 2022.

    The Jewish New Year, the onset of which is governed by a lunar calendar and falls this year on 26 and 27 September, is a solemn festival of remembrance, prayer, penitence, and faith. It is as different from 1 January as any date could be. There is no carnival spirit. There are no beach barbecues. The day’s observances are not devoted to drinking, but thinking.

    The thinking, however, is not academic or philosophical. It illustrates the contention of Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said of the constitution of the United States that it is “not a document but a living organism”. These words are true of the Rosh HaShanah experience, too. It is not so much an intellectual but an existential moment, arousing reflection about the nature of being human, being alive, being Jewish.

    A provocative highlight is the synagogue scriptural readings of the biblical story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) — undoubtedly one of the central stories of world literature and religion. Its fifteen short verses of unparalleled artistry show that the patriarch Abraham would go anywhere and do anything for the sake of God.

    Christians say it denotes that God’s “son” gave his life for the sake of humanity. For Muslims, it depicts Ishmael, prepared to be martyred.

    Some Jews see Isaac as the historical Jew, offered on the altar of God and His Torah. Not that the text itself says there was a sacrifice. There was a test, not a murder: a willingness for martyrdom, not martyrdom itself. Isaac, though not unscathed, survived; Abraham too survived, though subdued and changed.

    The Hebrew sages suggest that God addressed Abraham with the words, “Please stand by Me in this trial so no one will say your earlier trials had no substance.” This refers to the legend that there were ten trials of Abraham.

    Why, we wonder, was the patriarch constantly tested? The rabbis said that as a potter tests not his worst but his best work, so God tests the righteous but not the wicked. The wicked need no test; what makes them wicked is that — like poor quality pottery — they are full of holes, defective and unreliable.

    It seems likely that God had no intention to kill Isaac. Maybe Abraham and Isaac sensed that God would push them hard but not require a death, since the Torah forbids child sacrifice. It is said that the ram offered in Isaac’s place existed from the time of Creation, evidence that no sacrifice was envisaged.

    In a sense this speaks about the Holocaust too. There were six million Holocaust martyrs, but the Jewish people as an entity survived. Bruised and battered, Jews lost huge numbers — but the people as a whole somehow survived. Like Isaac, the Jewish people was shaken; like Isaac, they lived to tell the tale.

    Some criticise Abraham for going along blindly with God’s command. But could he have said “No”? Surprisingly, he could. Though Jews acclaim and revere God, they have a tradition of contention with Him.

    I once addressed a conference of Australian naval chaplains where one of the padres bared his soul with the words, “We are taught that God is always right. But it’s hard for us to always let God win the argument and, as in the Book of Job, to have the last word. What do you Jews say when they are upset with God?” A fair question.

    I replied, “It is said of Abraham that he is the Friend of God. God is our friend, and good friends (even as great as God and as small as human beings) can disagree with each other. Jews love God intensely, but they are not afraid to confront Him!”

    The history of confrontation goes back as far as Abraham himself. It began when Abraham said to God, “Does the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” (Genesis 18:25). It continued when Moses asked, “Why do You deal evilly with this people?” (Exodus 5:22). In the Talmud the question arises, “Is this religion, and is this its reward?”

    In the Jewish tradition, Rosh HaShanah is the annual day of judgment when God looks at His Creation and judges it. But the judging goes both ways. God judges man, man judges God — and God doesn’t always get off so lightly. What Jews find hard to take is the grim suspicion that God permits suffering, and history’s attempts at theodicy and rationalisation leave us unsatisfied. When we say that God intended to push Abraham and his son hard but not put them to death, it is reassuring but it still seems to ignore human suffering. Did God really need to test us so hard?

    It’s a question that keeps on keeping on. In his novel “The Town Beyond the Wall”, Elie Wiesel depicts Pedro the humanist as saying, “The dialogue — or duel — between man and his God doesn’t end in nothingness. Man may not have the last word, but he has the last cry.”

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